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Putin's invasion of Ukraine may be putting Russia's alliance with China to the test

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Less than a month ago, as Russian President Vladimir Putin was ordering troops to gather along the Russian border along the border with Ukraine, he made a trip to Beijing. He attended the opening of the Winter Olympics there and also, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, issued a sweeping joint statement that outlined their common interests. Putin said the China-Russian friendship had, quote, "no limits." But Russia's invasion of Ukraine may be putting that to the test.

NPR's China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch joins us. Hi, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: So that friendship-testing, relationship-testing element of this - what has the Chinese reaction been so far to Russia's actions in Ukraine?

RUWITCH: Yeah. China's been walking the line on this one. It's not explicitly sided with Russia here to back the invasion. You know, China's abstained in the United Nations Security Council votes on this and - rather than voting with, you know, its purported friend, Russia.

That cuts both ways, though. You know, it's not voting against Russia, either. Beijing has not condemned Russia. It's not even come close. You know, Chinese officials haven't called this an invasion, for instance. They say they oppose sanctions, and they've repeatedly said that legitimate security concerns of all states must be considered. And that language is important because, if you remember, Russia's unmet security concerns, which China's been supportive of - those are at the heart of Putin's rationale for attacking Ukraine.

And finally, China has been casting blame on the U.S. and NATO for what's been happening. They say they really pushed Russia into a corner.

PFEIFFER: John, the timing of all of this may be noteworthy because the assault on Ukraine started a few days after the Olympics and Putin's visit. Do we know if Putin told Xi Jinping that he was going to invade Ukraine?

RUWITCH: The short answer is no, we don't know. Nobody knows outside of the tight circles, you know, that were there. It's obvious that Beijing knew about the military buildup, of course, and the U.S. assessments of where it was headed, which turned out to be right.

I spoke with Joshua Eisenman about this. He's a China specialist at the University of Notre Dame. And he says it doesn't reflect well on Beijing either way.

JOSHUA EISENMAN: Because either they should have asked the question and they didn't, or they did ask the question and they got lied to. Or they did ask the question and they got the truth, and then they went out and did it anyway and now put themself in a box, right? So any of those scenarios doesn't look like a well-coordinated, structured Chinese response to the issue, right?

RUWITCH: Yeah. He also says that this also makes the - you know, this deepening China-Russia relationship that we hear about look like it's actually not very well-coordinated.

PFEIFFER: His comment that China is in a box now - at this point, what does China want?

RUWITCH: Well, the foreign ministry has said that what's happening in Ukraine is not something that China wants to see. It's been urging dialogue and negotiation, calling for restraint from all sides.

Zheng Wang is at Seton Hall University's Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. He says there are some in China who think that China could benefit from this war.

ZHENG WANG: They say this is an opportunity. It's a strategic opportunity. And I know many people are considering this is something significant for China and is good thing for China.

RUWITCH: Yeah, good thing for China. The idea is that this war is a distraction for the U.S., from its real foreign policy target, which is China. That reduces strategic pressure on China. The war may ultimately lead to a divided West. Russia could become more dependent on China. But, you know, a lot can go wrong on the path to that. And China is already catching flak for its sympathy for Russia.

PFEIFFER: NPR's John Ruwitch, thank you.

RUWITCH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON'S "MAS QUE NADA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.